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Funeral Etiquette: Tips, Attire, Flowers, and More

A funeral is an emotional occasion, and knowing how to act can be a challenge, especially if you’ve never attended one before. What should you wear? Where should you sit? How long should you stay? To help you feel less overwhelmed in your time of grief, we’ve written this guide about funeral etiquette in the UK.

What is the proper funeral etiquette in the UK?

It is common for the bereaved family to set the tone of the funeral service. Funeral etiquette can also vary according to tradition and family values.

Lots of questions might be raised if you’ve got to attend a funeral service or if you’ve got to arrange one. There are no actual rules you have to follow, but there are traditional ways to do things. Funeral etiquette covers funeral invitations, whether the funeral is public or private, when someone should attend a funeral, and much more.

What happens at a funeral?

Traditionally, a funeral ceremony begins with the body being brought in by pallbearers. During the service, people may say prayers, deliver eulogies, read passages from literature or scripture, or sing songs. When you arrive at a funeral, you’ll be given an order of service which details the format.

The committal (burial or cremation) will usually happen immediately after the ceremony, often in the same location, but here are some different options:

  • Crematorium service and cremation at the same venue
  • Crematorium service with burial in nearby cemetery
  • Church service followed by burial in the churchyard
  • Church service followed by burial or cremation at a location you need to travel to
  • Service at a secular ceremony venue followed by unattended burial or cremation

It’s become very common for there to be two parts to a funeral as this gives greater flexibility and allows all mourners to stay together. Here are some options for this way of doing things:

  • Unattended or private family committal followed by a celebration of life or memorial on the same day
  • Unattended cremation or private family committal followed by a celebration of life or memorial service at a later date

What to wear to a funeral?

It has been traditional for people to wear black when attending a funeral service. Black is considered a symbol of grieving and sympathy. People tend to be less sensitive about dress code today, but you should still show respect for the family by wearing more subdued colours and conservative attire. That said, it is increasingly common for people to be asked to wear bright colours or even themed outfits.

If you are attending a service of another faith or ethnicity be aware that some colours and staples are culturally inappropriate for certain traditions.

If you’re attending a celebration of life ceremony, the dress code is much less formal and people tend to choose more lively colours to wear, depending on the deceased’s wishes. If in doubt ask the family what their wishes are.

What to say at a funeral?

Knowing what to say to someone who has experienced a loss can be challenging. The most important thing to remember is that gestures as small as a kind word or hug can be comforting. Also remember that you are there to support the grieving person and in many cases, your presence alone is sufficient to communicate this.

You could also share a fond memory of the person who passed because it will help the grieving focus on happier times.

Platitudes should be avoided at all costs as they are often perceived as insensitive. You should not ask how the person died or share negative memories.  

What not to do at a funeral?

  • Don’t chat with those around you or eat and drink anything at the service venue(s)
  • Turn off your mobile phone and resist the temptation to check your text messages or your social media news feed
  • If you’ve brought young children with you and they are starting to make a noise, take them outside as soon as you can
  • Tears are normal and expected, however, if you find yourself crying uncontrollably, it’s best to excuse yourself from the service until you’ve regained control
  • If you participate in the open microphone, keep your remarks respectful and brief
  • At a religious service, try to participate to the best of your ability with singing and prayers
  • Don’t feel you have to file past an open casket, instead, simply gracefully and unobtrusively slip out
  • In some religious traditions, any type of recording device, such as a camera or video recorder, is forbidden
  • It is probably best not to take photographs at all, but if this is permitted be respectful - photographing the coffin or posing for a selfie near the coffin is generally considered to be in very poor taste

Do you bring flowers to a funeral?

Sending flowers is not always appropriate, however, many people appreciate sympathy bouquets or funeral flowers. Different religions and cultures have different funeral customs, so to avoid a faux pas it’s best to do your homework. For example, it’s inappropriate to bring flowers to a Jewish funeral.

Should children go to a funeral?

Children should be allowed to go to a funeral and say their own goodbye if possible. Small children may need a space where you can take them in case they get a little fussy. It might also be a good idea to sit closer to an exit, so you can step out quickly if you need to so that they don’t distract other mourners.

What is a pallbearer?

A pallbearer is someone who carries the coffin into the ceremony venue. The funeral director provides staff to perform this duty but sometimes family members or friends carry the coffin as a final gesture of care and respect. 

It is important to consider the different heights, age and strength of the people who want to carry the coffin, and how emotional they may feel on the day. An alternative is to place the coffin on a special trolley and have family members act as a ‘guard of honour’ to escort the coffin into the venue.

In the case of a burial you may want to ask the funeral director about family members lowering the coffin into the grave. This is more common for a Natural Burial as the grave is not as deep - it may be safer to leave this task to the  professionals, particularly for a traditional burial in a new, double-depth grave.

In the UK it is customary to only have 4 pallbearers, if you have lots of volunteers you can consider asking them to hand out and clear away the orders of service, or to take charge of collecting any memory cards from other mourners.

Who sits in the funeral car?

In a funeral procession, it is typical for the most immediate family members to travel in the funeral car behind the hearse. It could be the spouse, partner, parents, children, or siblings of the deceased.

Be gracious and understanding if you are not asked and make a real effort to be polite if you find yourself travelling with people you don’t usually get on with. The grieving family will greatly appreciate this effort.

If the family decides to ask mourners to use their own vehicles to form a procession they may appreciate help organising this.

Where to sit at a funeral?

It is typical for immediate family members and close friends to sit at the front of the venue during the funeral service. Other close family members generally sit in the seats or pews behind.

It’s not typical for there to be a seating plan, so if you’re unsure, not family or a very close friend, then it’s considerate to wait until others have taken their seats.

If the venue is not very full, try not to sit right at the back. The celebrant or funeral director may also invite mourners to move up before the service starts so that there is a real sense of ‘togetherness’ for the service.

Is it wrong not to attend a funeral?

It’s usually a good idea to attend the funeral if you’re close to the deceased or the family, but this isn’t always the case. Don’t feel wrong about not wanting to attend the funeral, especially if you have a legitimate conflict. It may be okay to skip the funeral if:

  • Your presence will upset the close family of the deceased
  • You’re not close to the deceased or their family
  • You were not invited and the event is not open to the public
  • You’re not able to take time off work or get bereavement leave
  • Your family or professional obligations collide with the duration of the funeral
  • You’re ill or taking care of a loved one who is ill

A growing number of funeral venues offer livestream technology and some families arrange for the service to be recorded for viewing later. The family will issue the secure details for access to the livestream or recording. Don’t be afraid to ask for these if you haven’t been sent them - remember that this is a very stressful time and the omission is unlikely to be intentional.

Do you have to have a funeral?

In the UK there is no legal requirement to have a funeral ceremony, only that the body is either cremated in an appropriate facility or buried properly. This is usually organised by a close family member, or the executor of your will.

There are many different reasons for not wanting a formal funeral. We’ve outlined a few of them, along with some alternatives.

  • You don’t want a traditional service: Choose an alternative celebration 
  • You don’t want a big fuss: Plan a direct cremation
  • You don’t want to spend lots of money on something you won’t get to see: Consider a living funeral
  • It’s not possible to have the body there: Host a memorial service

During the COVID-19 pandemic people have had to consider other ways to mourn the loss of a loved one because social distancing and other restrictions have prevented them from organising a traditional gathering. These have included Memorial Services once restrictions eased, Virtual Gatherings and Live Streaming of intimate farewells from the crematorium...or a combination of these different options.

What to do after the funeral?

It is customary for family and friends to gather together after the funeral ceremony and this get-together is known as a wake. This event will often include light refreshments, either at a home or in a private function area such as a hotel or pub. This is an opportunity to show support to the family and also share stories and happy memories of the person who has died.

The end of the wake is just the beginning of the grief journey for the bereaved so keep in touch and show that you have not forgotten their loss, especially during times such as Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries. Dealing with grief over the holidays can be a challenge but is also an opportunity for special remembrance moments.

The funeral is just one of the things that has to be dealt with when someone dies. You may have to manage your loved one’s finances and estate and arrange legal matters such as probate. Some things can be completed within a matter of days or weeks, but others, like probate, may take many months and you might wish to engage professional assistance to make this a less stressful process.

You may also want to consider more personal matters such as choosing a suitable memorial for your loved one or the perfect resting place for their ashes. You can take as long as you need to make these important decisions.

If you have any other questions or would like more information about what to do after the funeral don’t hesitate to get in touch with Pure Cremation’s team.